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Wearable Tech

Why virtual reality makes me want to dream of the future

The dream of VR is over 20 years old, but the magic of what it can do now has never been seen before...and it's only going to get better.

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Every time I put on a heavy pair of plastic, foam-lined virtual reality goggles, I feel silly. Of course I would: there I am, slipping a phone into a dock that fits over my face with elastic straps. It's weird. It's clunky. It's decidedly unsexy. From a distance, VR looks like the same silly tech that's been around since 1992.

And then, you experience it.

I've become a jaded tech reviewer: it's inevitable, when you see new things every day. But I find virtual reality emotional, exciting, invigorating. It fills me with the thrill of the future. And I'm not alone.

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Almost anyone I've ever shown virtual reality to, even the cheapest, simplest Google Cardboard , has become astonished, or wide-eyed, or full of childlike whimsy. Some people won't like what virtual reality offers, or understand why you need it. But most people think it's pretty amazing to behold. My son called them magic glasses. My mom smiled.

When I first tried modern VR in January 2013, I was in a Vegas hotel room suite, experiencing an Oculus Rift demo. I remember that I felt like I was wandering a medieval city, gliding along like I was at a Disney ride. I took the helmet off and felt disoriented, surprised...even though I'd read countless cyberpunk books, seen movies and read about VR since the days of Mondo 2000. It was stunning.

I used to dream of being in other worlds in virtual reality, head deep in science fiction books decades ago. This year, I've taken walks through undersea worlds, painted in the air with magic wands, driven getaway cars through high-speed shootouts, head-butted soccer balls into nets, seen imaginary circus shows and watched movies in virtual theaters, gone on an emotional documentary journey to a real refugee camp, and explored a playroom where I could grab and use whatever I could get my actual hands on.

Every experience I've had, in Samsung Gear VR , Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Project Morpheus, has been memorable. They've been the most exciting moments I've had in tech.

I've cried in virtual reality. Actually, several times. When I remember why I felt the way I did, I cry again. Virtual reality is not only emotionally resonant, but it creates a feeling of real emotional place memory. I feel like I can recall being in those places. It sounds like I'm exaggerating, but I think back to places I've been with a helmet on and they are places that surrounded me. I want to go back.

Using Oculus Rift and Touch, coming next year. Josh Miller/CNET

Virtual reality has gotten to an incredible place in a short time with its ability to create a 3D world you can look around, and even reach out and touch with custom controllers. The HTC Vive , Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus have motion controllers that let you, in some way, use your hands. Sound can become three dimensional and envelop you. I hear something behind me in the forest, and I can look, even bend down to see what's there.

What we see now in virtual reality, via high-resolution displays and head-tracking cameras that portray 3D worlds all around us, is just the beginning. Creating another world that's visually stunning, that's just the first step. We've barely even tapped into haptics and input, which will be the ways that we actually feel like we're doing things and touching things in those worlds.

Next year's Oculus Touch is part of those astonishing possibilities: to use your actual fingers, waving them, or picking something up, or plucking a slingshot. Telepresence is the next step.

Riding a bike. In VR (Project Morpheus), it's a flying horse. Josh Miller/CNET

People can use virtual reality to control construction equipment hundreds of miles away, or pilot an undersea vehicle, or a rover in deep space. If we can feel like we're seeing, hearing, even touching something far away, and whoever's there can reach out to us too, what will that mean for the future of meetings, of intimacy, or of our memories? And there could be amazing uses for VR yet to come: to explore microscopic realms, operate robots in places no one could otherwise reach, and even perhaps be in several places at once.

We don't "need" VR in the way we "need" laptops and smartphones. In a world full of capable computers, phones and tablets, and screens everywhere, we're saturated in apps and games and movies. I'm not even sure I could justify buying a VR rig for my home. Yet at the same time, VR is something everyone should experience, even just for a little bit.

Why? It's the tech that moves me. It's the tech that feels like a doorway to dreams, and strange creations. It feels like theater, and the history of early film and games, in the best possible way. It's a wild new world for explorers willing to create weird new projects.

And for all of that, I'm thrilled to see what comes next.